By Brian Harding —
Among its five treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. alliance with Thailand is the clear outlier. Forged in a strategic moment long past, when the two sides saw Thailand as a potential domino in the Cold War, the alliance has struggled to find a clear direction for over 40 years.
Political developments in Thailand and U.S. responses to various crises have widely sowed doubts about whether the alliance stands on strong footing, strategic outlook aside. Yet the U.S.-Thailand partnership endures, holds significant importance in both countries’ foreign policy outlooks, and continues to deliver benefits for both sides.
For Thailand, the United States remains a critical economic partner and its security partner of choice. For the United States, military cooperation and the access Thailand routinely provides for U.S military assets is irreplaceable in Southeast Asia and significantly contributes to overall U.S. strategy in the region. Compared with newer U.S. partnerships in Southeast Asia, such as with Vietnam and Malaysia, the existing depth and breadth of existing U.S.-Thailand cooperation is remarkable.
The United States and Thailand will unlikely return to a commonality of purpose in the near term due a lack of common enemy—or even a strategic competitor. While the United States increasingly sees China as a strategic competitor and finds many Southeast Asian nations eager for U.S. presence to counterbalance rising Chinese influence, Thailand stands out as being comfortable with China’s rise and its intentions despite being one of the United States’ two treaty allies in Southeast Asia. Given this reality, the United States should not harbor any illusions that Thailand will be an active partner on China-related challenges such as the South China Sea, let alone contingencies involving Taiwan.
However, U.S. interests in Asia do not begin and end with competition with China, and the U.S.-Thailand relationship offers substantial opportunities for the United States to pursue its interests in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Not least, Thailand’s geographic position as a bridge between South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia and the importance Bangkok gives to promoting regional connectivity offer opportunities for the United States and Thailand to cooperate in shaping how the broader Indo-Pacific develops.
While Thailand has been intensely focused on its own politics for over a decade, it is beginning to come out of its shell. Politicians of all political stripes recognize the importance of vigorous economic policy to escape the middle-income trap amid impending demographic challenges. The current government has formulated an ambitious 20-year economic plan in conjunction with a “Thailand 4.0” vision, with the development of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) across three provinces at its heart. Similarly, Thailand has shown strong interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in the near future, although no official steps have been taken to initiate the application process. While the timeline and some elements of these plans may be altered after potential elections in the first half of 2019, there seems to be widespread buy-in for the general framework.
There is also consensus that Thailand should be a key driver in shaping how the broader region integrates economically and territorially, with a particular focus on being the hub connecting South and Southeast Asia. Infrastructure development planned for the EEC dovetails with these ambitions, as does the current Thai government’s focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), whose seven members stretch east to west from India to Thailand. Likewise, Thailand is seeking to revitalize the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) framework to lead mainland Southeast Asia connectivity efforts itself. At the ACMECS Summit hosted in Bangkok this July, member countries pledged to set up a regional infrastructure fund by 2019.
For the Uniteds States, engaging Thailand in these efforts would be a natural opening for U.S.-Thailand cooperation in the broader region, with existing U.S.-Thailand cooperation under the Lower Mekong Initiative a solid foundation on which to build. Outward-looking economic policies will also provide U.S. economic actors with more investment opportunities in Thailand and in the broader region.
Thailand will also be thrust on the world stage in 2019 due to its ASEAN chairmanship. While Thailand is a founding member of ASEAN, its second largest economy, and a natural leader in the grouping, preoccupation with domestic politics has undermined Thai leadership within ASEAN for over a decade. Again, Thai leaders yellow, red, and green alike can find agreement in working to use the ASEAN chairmanship as a platform to return Thailand to its natural place in regional affairs.
For the United States’ part, President Trump should host a U.S.-ASEAN Summit, perhaps at Mar-a-Lago, to put U.S.-ASEAN relations on par with major relationships in Northeast Asia and add momentum to Thailand’s chairmanship year. President Trump should also nominate a new U.S. ambassador to ASEAN to reaffirm U.S. support for ASEAN’s central place in U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific.
After over four years of military rule, all signs point toward elections in early 2019. In the lead-up and aftermath, Washington will reflexively focus on how to grade the elections and whether to restore the limited assistance proscribed since the 2014 coup. However, U.S. aspirations for the relationship should transcend simply getting back to “normal.” Instead, the United States should be working closely with its oldest friend in Asia to help shape the future of regional architecture and foster stability and economic prosperity. Investing in Thailand’s own priorities would be a good place to start.
Brian Harding is deputy director and fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.